Thoughts on art that depicts the human figure…
Thoughts on my own life classes and also notes on artists whose subject matter is almost exclusively the human figure – not asked for as part of this research point but I’m interested to see if they are driven by the same impulse.
The artists I’ve looked at most during this Part Four are: Freud, Bacon and Alice Neel and it strikes me that each has a different approach, or a different reason for painting people.
- Freud paints almost exclusively nudes – mostly in relaxed positions, but sometimes contorted. They are often facing away from the sitter, or eyes closed. These images seem to be about his own attitude to the sitter, their body, the human body in general.
- Bacon’s figures are mostly clothed and in an abstract setting. The focus of the image is the head, because for Bacon it’s all about what is going on in that head – it’s about his relationship with that person.
- Neel’s sitters are mostly clothed and they almost always look directly at the painter. Her sitters are posed as for a traditional portrait, but casually so, as if they’ve just been asked to take a seat. While there is a clear sense of the contact between Neel and the sitter, the painting is about the sitter and their life – it feels more social documentary – she is capturing something about how their life is going at that point in time.
Portrait of PL, 1962, Francis Bacon
I’ve struggled with Francis Bacon’s work. I saw Francis Bacon and the Masters at the Sainsbury Centre in 2015, and two of his works have been shown in galleries near to me. I tried to give them time, but found the work so uncomfortable I moved on faster than I should have done, my summary something like ‘distorted pulverised faces, trapped and screaming silently’.
All I really knew of Bacon was that he was often obnoxious and drunk, and that he was very popular with art students in the 80s. No doubt these things lessened my interest in him.
The BBC documentary Great Artists in their Own Words: Out of the Darkness 1939-1966 helped me appreciate his paintings a little more. He had expressed the horror he had experienced (from helping in the war effort), but most importantly, he had done so in a new way.
Watching Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017) took my appreciation up a level further. It would be crazy if we had to research a painter’s life before being able to appreciate their work, but I think Bacon’s very public persona had repelled me in advance of seeing his work. Of course we learn about ourselves from our reactions to art and I suppose mine is rooted in fear – and add to that an unwillingness to delve further into the ‘why’.
Bacon however was willing to delve very deep. A friend of Bacon’s (in the documentary) describes his work as “the most extreme expression of what it was like to be Francis Bacon. He would almost empty himself of his bitterest thoughts on canvas and be purified”
Bacon’s life was shaped by early ill-health and humiliation and later by violence. He was a masochist with a penchant for deeply macho men and it’s clear that the violent episodes in his life were the main inspiration for his paintings. Though his partners were often the subject, in his own words: “When you are painting anything, you are painting not only the subject but also yourself …”
His paintings turn us all inside out, exposing the distortion that lies beneath the skin. In the portraits of his friends, partners and of himself there is constant conflict: vulnerability, violence, anger, tenderness and where faces are partly missing, dissolving and contorting, the question is always ‘who are we, really?’
Esther, 1980, Lucian Freud
In contrast to Bacon, Freud appears to use scrutiny, analysis in a search for the underlying emotion of the human body – more hidden in his subjects, and certainly within himself. Whereas Bacon’s life was raw and exposed with violent emotion, Freud’s appears to be cool and controlled, emotions kept locked away. In his own words “I hoped that if I concentrated enough the intensity of the scrutiny alone would force life in to the pictures”
Revealingly it was Bacon (the two became friends in 1945) that helped Freud find a closer connection with his subjects. “I saw there was something wrong about the distance between how I felt and the way I was working….I realised Bacon’s work related immediately to how he felt about life” This is the point at which Freud changed from painting with such tight control to using a bigger brush and showing more emotional engagement with his subject.
Like many people who have some difficulty getting emotionally close to others, Freud had a deep empathy with animals, extending to an interest in biology. He admitted: “I see as a biologist. When I’m painting people in clothes I’m always thinking of naked people or animals dressed”. This probably best describes how I feel when I see Freud’s paintings – that he has studied the body of his sitter as he might study the body of an animal, with a biological interest, he sees the bones, blood, organs – and how the skin changes as it runs blue or pink across those insides. He seems to capture instinctive emotions rather than anything running on the surface. Somehow he manages to explain to the viewer what it would be like to be in that body. He works on paintings for many many hours, often across years, so maybe over that time he strips away any superficially from the sitter – they are simply worn down to their basic self by the amount of hours they have sat!
His daughter Esther captures this well: “He’s not trying to depict an image of me. He’s painting who I am. I wanted to be a great beauty. But there I was myself – my teenage self was disappointed.”
Pregnant Woman, 1971, Alice Neel (photo taken at retrospective)
My thoughts on Alice Neel are in this previous post
My Own Life Drawing Classes
For the past few months I’ve taken a weekly life drawing class during which it feels like a very specific part of my brain lights up. I am completely absorbed. Why is life drawing is so compelling? At first I suspected it was simply the romance of fine art – perhaps we feel we can channel the masters through our own struggles with a charcoal stub, leaves of newsprint falling around our feet. But they in turn were compelled, and so it goes back throughout history, we have always drawn ourselves.
Then there is also the question of the nude. I say to myself that I am just as interested in drawing someone clothed. But then I think about all those folds of material hiding an extraordinary living being – and how I would miss that link from rib cage to arm pit, the challenge of clavicle and shoulder joint, the incredible strength of thigh locked into pelvis.
I’m interested in bodies and how we use them, our own relationship with them. I’m fascinated by how some people seem quite intimidated by their own body, fearful of twisting this or that, while others have deep understanding of how their body works and demand everything from it. And then there are those that treat it a bit like a handbag that can be changed when it’s worn out, using it as nothing more than a receptacle for junk.
Our posture, muscle tone, how we sit, stand, walk – these things give so much away about how we live our lives, who we are, who we think we are.
I think about the models that have passed through our life class, some just once, others are regulars. From smiles and ‘how are you’s?’ the transition is swift and then they are skin, muscle, bony joints, jawlines. Sometimes as I draw I wonder what it is like to inhabit that body. How they feel in that body, clothed and out on the street, these people that I know nothing about. I think how different it would be if my friends came in and undressed each week. It would be wonderful actually, but so, so different.
I do wonder about the whole process of going to a room once a week to draw someone who has no clothes on. The state of being naked has moved so far from simply being our most natural state. The naked or near naked body is used to sell us anything from aftershave to ice cream to plain old sexual thrills. And all the while creating a new ideal for us to measure our own bodies up against. It is absolutely fraught!
Is the life class a way of removing ourselves from this commercialisation of the naked body? Is it a way of reminding ourselves who we really are? Studying the way the skin stretches taught over a knee cap but sags in the folds under the arm, or how a shoulder blade will slide around the rib cage, and a belly will settle in folds on the thighs.
Having said this, I do sense tension within our art class when it comes to ‘the pose’. There is no instruction in the class – the pose is agreed on and off we go – but there is a split in the group from those that hope for a natural pose to those that prefer what I can only call contrived – an arching back, head thrown back, whatever position will accentuate the curves of hip or breast – a position that invites the viewer to look. As Gill Sanders puts it in her book The Nude, A New Perspective ‘The nude female body is commonly presented as a sexual spectacle, the picture set up as an invitation to voyeurism’. (Saunders, 1989) I’ve drily noted that on the rare occasions we have a male model, he is never invited to display his body in such a way.
Is it possible to draw a nude without sexual connotation? Does it even matter? Surely what is important is that bodies aren’t objectified, aren’t considered a ‘thing’, submissive and available. And how do we do that? Does it come down to the intention of the artist, to the mindset of the sitter, or the viewer?
PS. Something I forgot to mention is that I usually find that it’s more satisfying to draw a female body than male. I’m not absolutely sure why though I think it may be about curves. I’m tempted to suggest that curves are easier and more forgiving to draw than straight lines because actually the thought of drawing a beer-bellied man is more appealing to me than a super-athletic woman. The essential curves of a woman make it easer to convey the body than that of a man where the transition of breast to waist to pelvis is more subtle and demands closer observation for it to make sense.
Saunders, G. (1989). The nude. Cambridge: Harper & Row.
YouTube. (2017). Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017). [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgrO5za0lSY [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].
YouTube. (2017). Lucian Freud a Painted Life – YouTube. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sj9GxzVeYQ [Accessed 27 Jun. 2017].